Cambodia opposition leader Kem Sokha released from jail

The treason charges against Kem Sokha were widely seen as politically motivated and just two months later his Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was disbanded by a court

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 8:14am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 12:19pm

Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha was released from jail before dawn on Monday a year after he was detained on treason charges, his lawyer said, as the country’s strongman ruler loosens his grip on opponents after sweeping one-sided elections.

“Kem Sokha returned home at 3.30am,” his lawyer Chan Chen said, after his release from a remote border prison.

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A court official said Kem Sokha was freed on bail although his lawyer could not immediately confirm the conditions of his release.

He was arrested on September 3, 2017, and accused of treason as Cambodia’s premier Hun Sen deepened his pre-election crackdown on political rivals.

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The charges against Kem Sokha were widely seen as politically motivated and just two months later his Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – the only serious rival to Hun Sen – was disbanded by a court.

That left the ruling party to win all 125 parliamentary seats in July’s election, turning the country into a one-party state and extending Hun Sen’s 33-year stay in office.

Since the elections, dozens of other political prisoners have been released, including journalists, opposition leaders and political commentators critical of Hun Sen’s government. Analysts had predicted that these critics, all jailed in the lead up to the vote, would be released after Hun Sen had cemented his grip on power in a move to avoid sanctions or other punishment from the international community. In August, the United States said it would be extending a visa ban imposed on top Cambodian government officials, and the European Union has mulled over removing Cambodia from a preferential trade agreement under which their goods have tariff-free access to the European market.

“Hun Sen is using a strategy of incremental appeasement, whereby small concessions aim to produce large dividends,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia who studies Cambodian politics and authoritarian regimes.

He doubted that it would be enough to appease the European Union and the United States, which are both under significant pressure to act against Cambodia – especially as China toughens its economic grip on and support for the country.

Family members and other opposition leaders have pointed out that Kem Sokha is in poor health. Although he has been released from detention, charges against him have not been dropped, and he leads an opposition party that has since been banned, while Hun Sen will maintain power for the next five years.

“Sadly, this makes him inconsequential to the new political order,” Morgenbesser said.

Additional reporting by The Washington Post